An Argument Against “Chunking”

Learning and the Brain exists so that we can talk about good teaching together.

Although such conversations can provide great benefits, they also run into problems.

We might disagree with each other’s beliefs.

Or, we might disagree about research methods.

Even when we do agree, we might struggle to communicate effectively about shared beliefs.

For example: jargon.

When specialists talk with each other about “theory of mind” or “p3” or “element interactivity,” the rest of us often think “what the heck does THAT mean?”

Effective communication stops when words don’t have recognizeable meanings.

Another, subtler problem also hampers communication:

Effective communication stops when we use the same word to mean different things.

Sometimes this problem happens between disciplines.

The word “transfer,” for instance, has different meanings in neuroscience, education, and psychology.

Other words get us all tangled up, even within the same discipline.

I’m looking at you, “chunking.”

Television for All

I believe I first heard the word “chunking” to describe this mental phenomenon:

Imagine I ask you to memorize this list of letters:


Or, I might ask you to memorize THIS list of letters:


From one perspective, those lists are identical. They are the same letters in the same order. I just moved the spacing around a bit.

But, when I moved those spaces, I “chunked” the letters.

Penguins grouped together into the shape of a heart

That is: I organized those letters to align with your prior knowledge.

As teachers, we can reduce working memory load by “chunking”: that is, by aligning new ideas/information with ideas/information our students already have.

“Chunking” means “alignment with prior knowledge.”


Or, wait a moment…

Curiouser and Curiouser

I’ve also heard “chunking” used in entirely different ways.

The second meaning: “break larger pieces down into smaller pieces.”

If I’ve got a list of ten instructions I want my students to follow, that list will almost certainly overwhelm their working memory. So, I could break that list down.

Three instructions.

Then three more.

An additional two, followed by the final two.

VOILA, I “chunked” the instructions.

Of course, this kind of chunking (breaking down into smaller bits) doesn’t mean the same thing as the first kind of chunking (aligning with prior knowledge).

Nor does it mean the same thing as the THIRD kind of chunking: forming a link with prior knowledge.

That is:

You could learn that “hamster” is another “mammal” that people keep as a “pet.”

You’ve formed a new “chunk”: mammals that are pets.

Or, you could learn that “Saratoga” is another surprising military victory, like “Agincourt” and “Thermopylae.”

You’ve formed a new “chunk”: unlikely military victories.

You see the problem here?

In Sum

So, as far as I can tell, “chunking” means either…

… aligining new information with prior knowledge, or

… breaking large information dumps into smaller pieces, or

… connecting new information with well-known information (which sounds like the first meaning, but isn’t exactly the same thing).

If I tell a colleague, “I think that part of the lesson would have benefitted from more chunking,” s/he doesn’t really know what I mean.

Even worse: s/he might THINK that s/he knows — but might understand chunking one way when I mean it another.


To be clear: I am IN FAVOR of all three strategies.

After all: all three ideas reduce working memory load. And, I’m a BIG FAN of reducing WM load.

However, when we use the word “chunking” to describe three different teaching strategies, we make our advice harder to understand.

That is: we increase the working memory demands of understanding strategies to reduce working memory demands. The paradox is both juicy and depressing.

So, I am enthusiastically in favor of all the strategies implied by the word “chunking,” but I think we should stop calling them “chunking.”

Instead, we should use more precise vocabulary to label our true meaning.

category: L&B Blog

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